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February 8, 2013

Panel OKs most voting precinct consolidations

EBENSBURG — The Cambria County Board of Elections will be permitted to consolidate nearly all of the 76 voting precincts it wants to join with others, a three-judge panel has determined.

Consolidation was denied for just a handful of the precincts proposed for combination.

An opinion written by county Judge David Tulowitzki with concurrence by Judges Patrick Kiniry and Linda Fleming said the elections board – made up of the Cambria County commissioners – will not be permitted to consolidate four precincts in East Taylor Township into two; four precincts in Johnstown into two; and two precincts each in Susquehanna Township and West Carroll Township into one.

The decision came a week after the panel heard testimony from the commissioners and the director of the elections office outlining a consolidation plan geared at streamlining the voting process without overly inconveniencing the electorate.

County officials anticipate saving about $40,000 per election for a total annual savings of $80,000 by reducing the number of elections officers and supplies, President Commissioner Douglas Lengenfelder had told the court.

The elections board petitioned the court for approval to reduce the number of precincts from 165 to 127, a change the board said is necessary in part because of declining population.

Census figures provided by Commissioner Mark Wissinger show that Cambria County is losing about 1,000 people a year, a figure that he said has remained consistent over the past several years.

Opposition to combining some polling places came from a number of residents concerned about excessive travel distances and general inconvenience that they said could disenfranchise voters.

Through testimony and written comment, the court heard objections regarding nine of the proposed consolidations.

The court considered those objections, Tulowitzki said in the opinion, and denied the elections board’s requests for six consolidations.

The opinion cited a 1985 consolidation case in Clearfield County in which it was determined the court can consolidate and form new election districts to suit the convenience of electors and promote the public interest. With the ease of mobility in today’s society, traveling a slightly longer distance to vote should not discourage voters, the opinion stated.

While the state Election Code discourages formation of precincts with more than 1,200 registered voters, at least one of Cambria’s consolidated precincts will surpass that figure. But Tulowitzki said that with modern voting equipment, long wait times should not be a problem.

Because the consolidations will eliminate a number of posts for judges and inspectors of elections, the court ruled that all of those previously elected to the positions will be compensated for this year, even if they are displaced as a result of consolidation.

A schedule set up by court gives the elections office until March 1 to contact all of the judges and inspectors in the newly consolidated precincts to see if they are willing to serve in their previous capacities for this year’s elections. The panel’s opinion addresses how the elections board should handle a conflict between the judges and inspectors impacted by the consolidations.

The elections board has until April 1 to identify all elections officials who will serve this year.

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